Taking a Bow, But Not the Blame

The Art of Grabbing Credit and Dodging Responsibility

It's a dicey thing, taking credit for the way your kids turn out. One minute they do something wonderful, so you practically knock them down on your way to the podium to accept the award for it. The next minute they have the audacity to make a mistake, leaving you no choice but to go through the family photo album, gluing over their faces with a variety of heads you've cut out of a magazine.

The challenge, of course, is to keep your reflexes sharp so you'll be able to recognize quickly which deeds and traits you can grab full credit for, and which ones you can boldly lay at the feet of someone else. To illustrate my point, let me tell you about a particular weekend I spent with my own offspring a few years ago, when they were both in their 20’s and right in the big middle of "turning out.” 

The first night I stayed with our oldest daughter, who had been out of college about a year and was living all on her own. Arriving at her apartment I was greeted warmly at the door and ushered into a world of spotless order. I put my suitcase down in the living room. She whisked it away to a rack in the closet. I nibbled on a few crackers. She caught the crumbs in midair. Her spices were alphabetized, her shoes were stored in shoeboxes, and her magazines were placed at precise angles on the coffee table. I didn't want to look in the refrigerator. I was afraid the shelves would be lined.

That night before going to bed, she selected her outfit for work the next day, pressed it and hung it on the doorknob. The next morning she went about her routine with the calm precision of a well-rehearsed bank heist. There was no rushing about. No digging through drawers for pantyhose without a run. No frenzied search for her car keys. As I packed my bag to leave, nervously looking around to make sure I hadn’t messed anything up, I thought to myself, "I'm not surprised she's so neat and tidy. That's just how I raised her!"

A few hours later I was greeted at the door of our college son (let’s call him "Gak, the Cave Boy”), at the dumpy old off-campus house he shared with five other little cave boys. Taking a breath I gasped, "What died in here?"

"I don't smell anything," he shrugged. I groped my way through the cluttered rooms on a frantic quest to locate the source of the putrid odor. There were so many possibilities. Was it the muddy socks and in-line skates in the kitchen sink? Or the pizza boxes behind sofa?  Perhaps it was the bowl of crusty tunafish on the TV set. Or the wet towels growing independent life forms on his bed. After a while I gave up my search because – and this is the scary part – my olfactory senses had completely shut down.

Later that day, while attempting to use his toilet without actually coming in contact with the seat, I thought to myself, "Gak certainly didn't learn to live like this from me. He must have picked it up from all those other cave boys!"

For me, taking credit and shifting blame is an instant reflex that I still use today. When Lauren runs her household more efficiently than a nuclear power plant, I claim it’s because I taught her organizational skills. When she runs out of gas, I place the blame squarely on a faulty gas gauge. When Jason (you know him as Gak) misses a flight, it’s the fault of heavy traffic and inadequate airport parking. But when friends tell me how remarkably polite he is I reply, "I always placed an emphasis on manners at home." See?   It's easy, once you get the hang of it.

Unfortunately, not all moms have a talent for taking credit and shifting blame. Some will sit silently in the audience and let their children take all the bows for their own accomplishments. (Can you imagine?) Others, like fools, declare themselves guilty for every stupid little thing their kids do. And then there are those, like Margueritte Oswald, who are in a league all their own.  I once read that she snapped at a reporter, "If my son killed the president, he would have said so. That's the way he was brought up."

Listen, if I ever reach that point, you have my permission to glue someone else's picture over my face.

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